Defending the right to strike: defiance not compliance


“It is obvious that by reserving the sole authority to ministers to set the Minimum Service Levels, they can be set at such a high level that any strike will be rendered largely ineffectual.”

Lord John Hendy KC

By George Binette

The path to the statute book for the Tory government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill became a bit more difficult in late April. The House of Lords adopted a series of amendments, which would, in theory, gut the legislation. The Bill returns to the Commons next week, however, where the still substantial Tory majority all but ensures its eventual passage with few substantial changes, albeit at a slower pace than ministers originally envisaged.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission and even the odd Tory peer have voiced concern about the Bill’s provisions, but once the legislation gains Royal Assent, the Government will have still another weapon at its disposal to undermine union strength in addition to what are already Europe’s most restrictive laws on industrial action. Analysis from the TUC, published on 9th May, suggests that roughly one-fifth of the national workforce or some 5.5 million workers could be directly affected by the legislation. The six sectors specifically targeted are: education; health; public transport; fire and rescue services, the UK Border Force and nuclear decommissioning.

Summary Sacking

This exceptionally brief legislative proposal threatens to confer nigh unprecedented powers on Government ministers, in particular the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, currently Kemi Badenoch, an ardent latter-day Thatcherite. She will have the authority to set the “minimum service levels” (MSLs). As Professor Keith Ewing and Lord John Hendy have noted, “It is obvious that by reserving the sole authority to ministers to set the MSLs, they can be set at such a high level that any strike will be rendered largely ineffectual.”

Employers in the relevant sectors will then have the authority to dictate what makes for adequate staffing in the event of strike action. This would open the door to mass sackings. Workers and their unions will have satisfied all the previous requirements of Tory legislation only to face the very real possibility of employers ordering those who had backed lawful strike action to work on pain of summary dismissal.

In one sense the introduction of the Bill testifies to the failure of the Tories’ Trade Union Act 2016 with its introduction of high thresholds for membership turnout in postal ballots and longer notice periods of industrial action to employers. After all, Government ministers had assumed that unions would struggle in vain to beat the legal requirements, especially at a national level. But as the past year has demonstrated several unions have done just that – in some cases repeatedly. Even so, the comparative success in surmounting the hurdles imposed by the 2016 legislation should not lead anyone to downplay the seriousness of this latest attack.

Though loathe to lend support to the recent upsurge in strikes, the Labour leadership has opposed the Bill in its entirety so far and Keir Starmer himself has given an unqualified pledge to repeal an eventual Act in the first 100 days of a Labour government. The trade union movement generally and Labour-affiliated unions, not least UNISON, must maintain pressure on the leadership to honour this pledge (in contrast to the fate of many others).

Mass Movement

The TUC’s call for a protest to coincide with the Bill’s return to the Commons is a step in the right direction, but it is hardly a sufficient response to an attack of this magnitude. Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary Matt Wrack has called for a “mass movement” to oppose the legislation. While recognising that the unions remain in a far weaker position than 50 years ago, when the credible threat of a general strike beat back the Heath government’s Industrial Relations Act, the FBU’s executive is calling for serious consideration of a campaign that includes “mass non-compliance” with the eventual law.

Defining what this means concretely will be crucial, but as Lord Hendy himself has noted the legislation will not be defeated through Parliament or the courts, but through demonstrations and picket lines. The best defence of the “right to strike” will ultimately be to exercise it.

  • George Binette is the Trade Union Liaison Officer for Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP, writing in a personal capacity.
  • The TUC has called an emergency rally in Defence of the Right to Strike at 6pm Monday, May 22nd, taking place at Parliament Square, SW1 as the notorious Bill returns to the Commons.
  • Join Arise Festival for an online rally against the legislation and other draconian attacks on basic liberties – “Our Right to Resist” takes places Wednesday evening 31 May. Register and find out more here.
Featured image: Protect the right to strike poster. Photo credit: Trades Union Congress (TUC)

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